Remember the “I Love Lucy” episode when the always star-struck Lucy eats at Hollywood's Brown Derby and finds William Holden sitting in the next booth? Hilarity, of course, ensues, with Lucy making a fool of herself trying to get Holden's attention — not the first fan to try interacting with a celebrity trying to have a quiet dinner at a restaurant.
This endures to a certain extent today at celeb-soaked restaurants like Spago and Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, which count George Clooney among their guests. It is discouraged (though not unknown) in New York.
There, however, the "if you're not famous-go-wait-in-line" syndrome often stands. Take the two restaurants owned and opened by Graydon Carter, the wild-haired editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair.
His Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village is so exclusive that the restaurant doesn't answer the phone; you either have to have Carter's personal phone number or go down to the restaurant in the afternoon and beg a table. Once there you may pass by Uma Thurman and Anne Hathaway in the front room--on your way to Siberia in the back. Carter has added another feather to his restaurant cap--the old 1930s Monkey Bar in Midtown, which had deteriorated into a series of losing restaurants until Carter revamped it as a hang-out for his closest friends. There are, apparently, "A" tables and "B" tables, and those not famous can only hope for a 6:30 table, at best.
Many restaurants confer with celebs' "people" as to the best tactics to avoid the paparazzi at the front door. The manager of the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, where villas rent for up to $7,000 a night — and that boasts that "Movie stars get big trailers. The really big stars get us" — said that if a big star like Madonna is dining at their intimate restaurant, The Room, she may be ushered through the service hallways to a back door while a double in sunglasses whooshes into a waiting limo at the front door.
Do this, don't do that
But for the average diner who, like Lucy, finds herself seated across from a celebrity, there are rules of behavior. The first: no asking for an autograph. If seated next to a celeb (the big guys at the next table may be his bodyguards), a simple nod of recognition should be all you allow yourself of intimacy. Celebs may well want attention, but on his or her terms.
In a place like New York's Balthazar in Soho, the chances of spotting someone from the entertainment or fashion business is very high because so many of those industry's celebs either live or have offices in the area. You might find Bill Gates lunching with Bono, or Martha Stewart, who also likes to dine at celeb Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Greenwich Village restaurant Perry Street, where she had an apartment in the building, along with Nicole Kidman and Calvin Klein.
Bill Cosby, who frequents New York's Le Cirque in Midtown, literally gets up from his table and goes around the room to kibbitz with the restaurant's guests. In fact, Le Cirque is one of the city's best-known celeb hang-outs, including everyone from Woody Allen and Barbara Walters to Henry Kissinger and Bill O'Reilly. Once, when a non-celeb newcomer complained to Le Cirque's owner, Sirio Maccioni, that the tables were too close, he allegedly responded, "Sir, would you rather sit this close or this far from Sophia Loren tonight?" — just as Sophia swept into the restaurant.
Biting into the Big Apple
Of course, New York is the East Coast epicenter for celebrity dining. Some even own restaurants themselves, including Robert DeNiro, who, with Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Lou Diamond Philips and Christopher Walken, is a partner at Nobu. TriBeCa Grill shares some of those same celeb owners.
At Manhattan's legendary Four Seasons Grill Room the titans of media and New York City politics gather and jockey for tables every day at lunch, so you might hobnob with Mayor Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch and Jann Wenner there.
Los Angeles' appetite
Of course, on the West Coast the restaurant of the moment in Hollywood will always be the one drawing the most celebs. Restaurant publicists tell the media who dined where and when, and if an L.A. restaurant doesn't have what they call a "sizzle factor," it's not likely to stay open long.
Beso (which means "kiss" in Spanish) is a Todd English restaurant — himself a celebrity chef — with partner Eva Longoria of "Desperate Housewives," who draws pals like Sheryl Crow, Jessica Simpson and Paula Abdul to sip mango mojitos and chow down on Mexican tapas like tortilla soup and skirt steak fajitas. The tortilla soup and guacamole are said to be Longoria family recipes.
Ortolan is a swank French restaurant owned by Chef Christophe Émé and his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, who attracts her star friends and not a few Trekkies who come to see the woman who once played the Borg named Seven of Nine.
Other good bets for celeb watching are the more secluded and reclusive hotel dining rooms like the Bar Marmont at Château Marmont Hotel and Bungalows (Charlize Theron, Keanu Reeves, Courtney Love, Johnny Depp, Amy Winehouse, Sting) and the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel (especially breakfast for studio bigwigs courting stars).
Given that Las Vegas has developed both a commanding entertainment scene along with first-rate restaurants, you'll find celebs visiting on a regular basis. At the Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino, they have a place named Sinatra's that evokes the mystique of Ol' Blue Eyes and has drawn stars like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Garth Brooks.
And in Washington, D.C., where pols have to be pretty careful whom they're seen with and where, The Monocle, just shy of the Capitol, is where senators go for lunch, alerted by a dining room bell that summons them back for an important vote.
But now that Barack Obama has come to Washington, new places have vied for his visitations and gotten them, including the fine dining restaurant Equinox, two blocks from the White House; it was here that he celebrated his wife Michelle's 45th birthday. President Obama also seems to be a fan of Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Dupont Circle, while his staff have carved out their own niche in D.C.
The Hawk n' Dove is where the congressional junior staff members threw a party for Obama press spokesman Robert Gibbs. Close to the White House, the Oval Room is a big power lunch place, while the newcomer in town that's been attracting the big names is Bourbon Steak in Georgetown's Four Seasons Hotel, where former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev dined on the same night, as have Brad Pitt, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.